Wasps, aphids and ants: the other honey makers



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Myrmecocystus honeypot ants, showing the repletes, their abdomens swollen to store honey, above ordinary workers.
Greg Hume via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Manu Saunders, University of New England

There are seven species of Apis honey bee in the world, all of them native to Asia, Europe and Africa. Apis mellifera, the western honey bee, is the species recognised globally as “the honey bee”. But it’s not the only insect that makes honey.

Many other bee, ant and wasp species make and store honey. Many of these insects have been used as a natural sugar source for centuries by indigenous cultures around the world.




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By definition, honey is a sweet, sticky substance that insects make by collecting and processing flower nectar. The commercial association between honey and honey bees has mostly developed alongside the long-term relationship between humans and domesticated honey bees.

This association is also supported by the Codex Alimentarius, the international food standards established by the United Nations and the World Health Organisation. The Honey Codex mentions only “honey bees” and states that honey sold as such should not have any food additives or other ingredients added.

Oh honey, honey

Biologically, there are other insect sources of honey. Stingless bees (Meliponini) are a group of about 500 bee species that are excellent honey producers and are also managed as efficient crop pollinators in some regions. Stingless bees are mostly found in tropical and subtropical regions of Australia, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Americas.




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Their honey is different in taste and consistency to honey bee honey. It has a higher water content, so it’s a lot runnier and tastes quite tangy. Stingless bee honey is an important food and income source for many traditional communities around the world.

Harvesting “sugarbag”, as it’s known in Australia, is an important cultural tradition for indigenous communities in northern and eastern regions.

A sugarbag bee.
James Niland/Flickr, CC BY

Stingless bee honey production hasn’t reached the commercial success of honey bee honey, mostly because stingless bee colonies produce a lot less honey than an Apis honey bee hive and are more complicated to harvest. But keeping stingless bees in their native range for honey, pollination services and human well-being is an increasing trend.

Bumblebees also make honey, albeit on a very small scale. The nectar they store in wax honey pots is mostly for the queen’s consumption, to maintain her energy during reproduction. Because very few bumblebee colonies establish permanently, they don’t need to store large quantities of honey. This makes it almost impossible to manage these bees for honey production.

Bees aren’t the only hymenopterans that make honey. Some species of paper wasps, particularly the Mexican honey wasps (Brachygastra spp.), also store excess nectar in their cardboard nests. Local indigenous communities value these wasps as a source of food, income and traditional medicine.

Mexican honey wasp.
Wikimedia Commons

Ants have similar lifestyles to their bee and wasp cousins and are common nectar foragers. Some species also make honey.

“Honeypot ant” is a common name for the many species of ant with workers that store honey in their abdomen. These individuals, called repletes, can swell their abdomens many times the normal size with the nectar they gorge. They act as food reservoirs for their colony, but are also harvested by humans, particularly by indigenous communities in arid regions.

Close-up of three large replete honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus mimicus) at Oakland Zoo.
via Wikimedia Commons

These ants don’t just collect nectar from flowers, but also sap leaks on plant stems (called extrafloral nectaries) and honeydew produced by hemipteran sap-suckers like aphids and scale insects.

Aphids and scale insects aren’t all bad – they produce a delicious sugary syrup called honeydew. We mostly know these insects as garden and crop pests: warty lumps huddled on plant stems, often coated in sticky honeydew and the black sooty mould that thrives on the sugar.

Males of these insect species are usually short-lived, but females can live for months, sucking plant sap and releasing sweet sticky honeydew as waste from their rears. The sugar composition varies greatly depending on both the plant and the sap-sucking species.

Honeydew has long been a valuable sugar source for indigenous cultures in many parts of the world where native honey-producing bees are scarce. Many other animals that seek out floral nectar, like bees, flies, butterflies, moths and ants, also feed on honeydew. It’s an especially valuable resource over winter or when floral resources are scarce, and not just for other insects; geckoes, honeyeaters, other small birds, possums and gliders are all known to feed on honeydew.

Honeydew on a leaf.
Dmitri Don/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

It’s also an indirect source of honey bee honey: plant sap that has been recycled through two different insect species! Honey bees are well-known honeydew collectors. In some parts of Europe, honeydew is an important forage resource for bee colonies.

Honeydew honeys have a unique flavour, depending on the host tree the scale insects were feeding on. Famous examples of this specialty honey are the German Black Forest honey and New Zealand’s Honeydew honey.




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So why not find out a bit more about what insects are producing honey in your local region?The Conversation

Manu Saunders, Research fellow, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Ants, bees and wasps: the venomous Australians with a sting in their tails


David Yeates, CSIRO

The prize for the most painful and sometimes deadly (more on that later) stings in the insect kingdom goes to … wasps, bees and ants.

There are many insects that bite, such as beetles and dragonflies, or suck your blood with long hypodermic mouthparts (mosquitoes, for instance, and sandflies). But none of these are deadly in themselves.

Mosquitoes do transmit deadly diseases, such as malaria and dengue. But it’s not the mosquito bite as such that kills; it’s the tiny parasitic microorganism that the mosquito transmits.

It’s really bees, wasps and ants – a group known as Hymenoptera – that can claim the title of deadliest insects. How did they evolve to be so painful?

How insects stings evolved

Many wasps are parasitic and developed long pointy hypodermic needles (or ovipositors) to inject their eggs into their hosts. Over evolutionary time, some of these parasitic wasps changed their lifestyle and became predatory. Some even went on to feed on pollen and nectar (bees).

A worker bee can sting a person only once.
吉輝 温/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

What happened to the ovipositor when wasps no longer needed to inject eggs? It became a pointy sting, a device for subduing prey with venom, as well as laying eggs.

It’s important to remember that only female wasps, bees and ants can sting; males don’t have the right apparatus.

Many of these stinging wasps, bees and ants have also become highly social insects. This means they live in large colonies such as honeybee hives, or ant nests. In these colonies, generally only a pair (a queen and a male drone, in the case of honeybees) or a few individuals reproduce.

All the rest are genetically and anatomically sterile females, and they do all the work inside and outside the hive or nest. These workers no longer need an ovipositor to lay eggs and it has become their primary weapon of choice, solely devoted to defence of the nest.

Workers use the sting to defend the wasp or bee nest, or ant colony. Queen bees lay eggs with their ovipositor and can also sting, but are usually tucked away in the nest far from harm.

Worker bees can sting humans only once – their barbed sting lodges in our skin and doesn’t retract, so the entire sting and the poison gland breaks free from the bee when it stings. The worker bee dies soon after and releases alarm pheromone, which alerts other workers that the nest is under threat.

A very good way of provoking a large number of European (or any other) wasps is to disturb their nest.
Ziva & Amir/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

More bees sting and release more alarm pheromones, attracting more alarmed bees … you get the picture. If you’re stung, remove the sting as soon as possible – this minimises the amount of venom injected.

A very small number of people (about one or two in every 100) can become hypersensitive after a bee sting. They become allergic to the venom, and their reaction becomes stronger when stung in future.

A highly allergic person may suffer anaphylactic shock from the sting, which can be life-threatening and requires medical treatment. A self-injecting EpiPen containing adrenalin is used to treat anaphylactic shock.

The most painful

Another common introduced stinger in Australia is the European wasp, Vespula germanica. This wasp’s sting doesn’t get stuck in our skin, so they can inflict multiple stings when annoyed or provoked. A very good way of provoking a large number of European (or any other) wasps is to disturb their nest – never do this.

A very small percentage of people can also develop an allergic reaction to European wasp stings, just like honeybee stings. In severe cases, this can cause anaphylactic shock.

Arizona entomologist Justin O. Schmidt developed the Schmidt Pain Index 30 years ago to rank the painfulness of wasp, bee and ant stings on a four-point scale.

Zero on the Schmidt pain index is the feeling of an insect that can’t sting you, such as Australia’s native stingless bees. Two is the familiar pain of a honeybee. Four is reserved for just a few heavy hitters, such as a very large spider-killing wasp, or the infamous bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) of South America.

The notorious and excruciating pain of the bullet ant lasts for 24 hours. Schmidt has been stung by more than 100 insects to create his scale, and was awarded the 2015 Ig Nobel Biology Prize for his efforts.

Some of the most common painful stingers in the Australian bush are native bulldog ants of the genus Myrmecia. These are some of the largest ants in the world and combine a painful sting with an aggressive, take-no-prisoners attitude. On top of this, many species can jump. They rate up to three on the Schmidt Pain Index.

Bulldog or jack-jumper ants have impressive long, toothed and curved jaws, but it’s the sting at the end of their abdomen that does the damage.

My most painful memory as a boy was annoying a bulldog ant nest in the Sydney bushland with a stick. Eventually a huge worker bulldog ant crawled up out of sight underneath my stick and gave me a sting on the thumb I thoroughly deserved – and will never forget.


This article is the last of our series Deadly Australia. You can see the whole series here.

The Conversation

David Yeates, Director of the Australian National Insect Collection, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.